When people talk about Purdue basketball, the discussion usually begins and ends with the "Big Three:" juniors Robbie Hummel, JaJuan Johnson, and E'Twaun Moore.
The classmates have been fixtures on Top 100 recruiting lists, opponents' scouting reports, and All-Big Ten teams since they first stepped foot in West Lafayette three seasons ago.
However, when the Boilermakers needed back-to-back victories to secure their first regular-season league championship since 1996, it was the OTHER upperclassmen, the not-so-heralded but every-bit-as-important senior class, that helped finish the job.
As Hummel watched in street clothes, Moore struggled to find the range on his jumper, and Johnson battled sagging zones and double-teams, veteran guards Chris Kramer and Keaton Grant stepped confidently into the limelight this week to help Purdue hang its league-record 22nd men's basketball championship banner.
Kramer did his damage on Wednesday night against bitter rival Indiana, tallying a game-high 18 points and six assists in a 74-55 Senior Night victory.
The indispensable leader, known more for defense than offense throughout his career, converted seven of his eight field goal attempts and played 36 minutes to spark the Boilers to a pivotal win.
With Hummel out of the lineup for the remainder of the year due to a knee injury, Kramer has been forced to defend much-taller players as Purdue's closest thing to a power forward.
Despite playing out of position, Kramer imposed his will against the Hoosiers from the opening tip, playing with his trademark hustle, grit, and toughness (and a beautifully surprising shooting stroke, to boot).
The victory over IU meant the Boilers could clinch a share of the Big Ten championship by winning at Penn State in the regular-season finale. And with one of his team's biggest goals finally there for the taking, fellow senior Keaton Grant rose to the occasion.
Grant poured in a season-high 17 points against the Nittany Lions to carry Purdue to a 64-60 nailbiter win.
The senior sharpshooter drained five three-pointers in the game, with each one seeming to come just as the Boilers needed the momentum and points the most.
The victory and scoring outburst marked the culmination of a long journey for Grant, who lost his starting spot earlier in the season during a horrible shooting slump.
Now it appears the Boilermakers' team MVP of two seasons ago is finally back to top form, just in time for Purdue to open postseason play.
While Kramer and Grant alone can't carry the Boilermakers very far in March (translation: E'Twaun Moore needs to kick his post-Hummel tailspin sooner rather than later), they certainly made the difference this week.
And was anyone really surprised?
Sure, according to the stat sheets, Kramer's 18 points against Indiana and Grant's 17 at Penn State are an anomaly, a fluke, and a lucky one-time occurrence. (After all, both seniors are averaging less than seven points a game.)
However, this humble writer's guess is that both players tally a few more double-digit outings before they hang up their Purdue jerseys for the final time.
The mark of true senior leaders is doing whatever it takes to help their team win, and the Hummel-less Boilermakers are craving the kind of scoring potential Kramer and Grant showed the past two outings.
For Purdue to win the Big Ten Tournament this week in Indianapolis...or (shhh, don't tell the national media this is even still a possibility) sneak back to the Final Four a couple blocks away...the Boilermakers' seniors will have to continue to make the crucial perimeter jumpers that Robbie Hummel used to swish on a regular basis.
And this week, they proved that's not quite as far outside the realm of possibility as we might have previously thought.
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